The knowledge we glean from scientific studies is shaped by the interpretations we make about the evidence. But interpretations are filled with assumptions, generalizations, oversights, and mistakes. In the social sciences, these errors are referred to as cognitive biases. By the time perceptual information reaches consciousness, we have transformed it into something new and unique. This reconstruction of reality is the foundation from which we construct all of our beliefs about the world.
Research has identified hundreds of cognitive biases; see how many of the following ones influence your personal beliefs.
We have the propensity to automatically believe information given to us by family members and close friends. Our brain has relied on these individuals throughout our life, and thus we tend to accept their word without checking the facts.
We tend to believe people who hold positions of power and status. We give them more credibility without checking their sources.
We give greater credibility to taller and more attractive individuals because the brain seeks aesthetically pleasing things. People who make more eye contact are also more likely to be believed.
We all have the tendency to emphasize information that supports our beliefs, while unconsciously ignoring or rejecting information that contradicts them. Since beliefs become embedded in our neural circuitry, contradictory evidence often cannot break through the existing connections in the brain.
In conjunction with confirmation biases, we also tend to maintain beliefs that benefit our own interests and goals.
We unconsciously give preferential treatment to other members of our group and rarely question their beliefs because our brains are wired to seek conformity with others.
We generally reject or disparage the beliefs of people who are outside of our group, especially when their beliefs differ from our own. In addition, we have a biological propensity to feel anxious when encountering people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, even when they are members of our group.
Group Consensus Bias:
The more other people agree with you, the more likely you will be to assume that your beliefs are true. Conversely, the more people disagree with you, the more likely you’ll suppress and doubt your own beliefs, even if they are correct.
This reflects our tendency to go along with the belief systems of whatever group we are involved with. The more people you are surrounded by, the more likely you’ll modify your beliefs to fit theirs.
We often assume, without checking, that other people in our group hold similar beliefs, share similar morals, and see the world in similar ways. The Central Intelligence Agency refers to this bias as the “everybody-thinks-like-us mind-set” and considers it one of the most dangerous biases a person can have. Why, because different cultures, and different personality types, like terrorists, don’t think like us.
When looking for information, or conducting research, we have a propensity to “discover” what we are looking for. In medicine, double-blind studies try to eliminate this pervasive bias.
“Magic Number” Bias:
Numbers influence our beliefs because of the strong quantitative functions of the brain. The larger and more dramatic they are, the greater emotional impact it will have, and this, in turn, strengthens our trust in the information being quantified.
We like to believe that we are luckier than others, and that we can beat the odds. Depressed individuals tend to believe the opposite. This is also known as the gambler’s bias. If you flip a coin that turns up “heads” nine times in a row, most people will bet a lot of money that the next flip will be “tails.” Of course, the probability remains the same for every flip; you still have only a 50/50 chance of being right. We also maintain magical biases that are carried over from childhood, thus many adults, especially gamblers, keep “special” items (a four-leaf clover, rabbit’s foot, or coin) to help bring them luck.
Our brains are predisposed towards making causal connections between two events, even when no such connection exists. If you take an herbal remedy and your cold disappears, you’ll attribute the cure to the remedy, even though dozens of other unrelated factors may be involved.
We tend to assume that pleasing experiences reflect greater truths than unpleasant experiences, in part because the pleasure centers in the brain help control the strength of perceptions, memories, and thoughts.
We prefer to give inanimate objects life-like qualities. We also tend to give ambiguous stimuli (shadows, indistinct sounds, etc.) human and animal-like forms. This perceptual and cognitive function gives rise to various superstitious beliefs.
Our brain automatically assumes that our perceptions and beliefs reflect objective truths about our selves and the world. This leads to the old saying, “Seeing is believing.”
Once we believe in something, we will continue to insist that such beliefs are true, even when contradictory evidence is offered. And the longer we maintain specific beliefs, the more ingrained they become in our neural circuitry.
False Memory Bias:
Our brains tend to retain false memories longer than accurate ones. It is also easy to implant false memories in others if the circumstances are right and the information plausible.
Positive Memory Bias:
When reflecting on the past, we tend to recall events in a more positive and favorable light than when they first occurred.
We tend to believe arguments that strike us as more logical. We also tend to ignore information that doesn’t make sense to us. As William James said, “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”
We are more likely to believe someone who is more dramatic and emotional when arguing a particular point of view. Our brain tends to resonate with great speakers and we can get caught up in their emotions and their beliefs.
We give more weight, and remember more easily, names and information that appear at the top of a list.
Our brains do not like uncertainty and ambiguity; thus we prefer to either believe or disbelieve, rather than remain uncertain.
Strong emotions usually interfere with logic and reason. Anger tends to evoke the belief that we are justified and right, anxiety undermines such beliefs, and depression obscures optimistic beliefs.
Book, journal, and magazine editors prefer to publish articles that show positive outcomes and exclude articles with negative findings. Thus, a research project showing that religion has negative effects is less likely to be published than one that shows positive effects. Another dimension of this bias reflects the propensity of readers to assume automatically that anything published is true, even when it appears in the tabloids.
Last, but not least, researchers have identified a “blind-spot bias,” which means that most people fail to recognize how many cognitive biases they actually have, or how often they fall prey to them.
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